Mohamed Salah’s miraculous season
Mohamed Salah had the ball at his feet and two defenders on him, there was a feinted movement away from the goal only for him to swiftly change direction towards the goal, leaving one defender on the floor, and slotted the ball past the goalkeeper. He then made a poacher’s run through the middle to finish an enticing cross. The best of the lot was when three defenders made synchronous movement to get to Salah only for him to then move inside towards two more opposition players, and despite being pulled and later kicked, he still found a way past the five bodies and the goalkeeper. His final act of the night was slamming home a rebound. In between there was also an assist for Roberto Firmino. Salah accomplished all this on just the Saturday night against Watford.
And it is just the continuation of his season mirabilis at Anfield. Salah has the most goals of any Liverpool debutante in a Premier League campaign. We are still in March. With 28 league goals in 30 matches—more than any player in the top five European leagues and 36 in all competitions—he appears all set to finish the season with the Premier League Golden Boot. He is also likely to break the all-time Premier League record of 31 goals by the end of the season, and possibly even the 34-goal record in a 42-match campaign.
When the forward moved to Liverpool after a season at Roma, there was a sense of the Reds having signed a talented player but no one could have predicted the incredible impact he has had on the fortunes of the Anfield outfit.
Back in the summer, Salah was not an unknown entity, however, Liverpool weren’t really being challenged by any serious bidder for the Egyptian’s signature either. At 24, he wasn’t exactly a young prospect. Nevertheless, there was no doubting his talent, having flickered in instalments but never quite consistently luminous since he was at Basel.
Salah joined the Swiss outfit in 2012 from Cairo-based El Mokawloon and had two seasons at the club. Not a club of European pedigree by any measure, but Basel have built some reputation for proving to be tough cookie for English outfits. It was his trickery and three goals against Chelsea over two European campaigns that convinced then Blues’ manager Jose Mourinho to bring him to Stamford Bridge in the winter window of 2014.
A year at Chelsea didn’t prove much of a success for the Egyptian. Mourinho is renowned for his ability to win trophies but when it comes to developing talented youngster into future stars, the Portuguese isn’t really an Alex Ferguson or a Pep Guardiola. After handing the Egyptian upstart just 13 league appearances—which yielded two goals—in 12 month, he was shipped on loan to Fiorentina in the winter of 2015.
Salah’s stint in the English game didn’t go according to plan. Nevertheless, he still retained his scorching pace and ability to take on wide defenders but more often than not there was no end product. The 25-year-old’s passes from the wing eluded their intended targets and his first-touch touch left a lot to be desired. But the most exasperating part of his game was wayward shooting, missing more chances than he should have been. A lack of regular minutes was attributed as potential reason and so was the inability to raise his game in a relatively stronger league.
In a less pressure setting at La Viola, 16 appearances for Salah yielded six goals. But Chelsea were still not in the mood to bring him back. Next up was a loan to Roma. A return of 15 goals and nine assists across all competitions convinced the Giallorossi to make the move permanent. However, his failings at Chelsea were still very apparent.
They were highlighted at the highest level in the 2015-16 Champions League round of 16 encounter against Real Madrid. The Italians were comprehensively beaten 2-0 in the first leg but had the Spaniards consistently on the mat in the return leg at the Stadio Olimpico only for Salah to come excruciatingly close to scoring but never quite doing it. Two second half goals sent Roma to the gallows but left a lingering sense: what if Salah buried his chances?
There was no Champions League for Salah in his second season at Roma but a return of 19 goals and 15 assists in all competitions, which brought with it the heightened possibility of the winger taking his talents to a bigger team.
When Liverpool went for Salah last summer there was no questioning the talent they were acquiring but questions still remained about his finishing. Over the following months, he has proved to be an astute piece of business by the English giants, not only for his prolific scoring but also for his modest €35 million transfer fee, which might have been a decent sum in a pre-Neymar world but can now be considered nothing but a steal. After all Gylfi Sigurdsson went for a €15 million more to Liverpool’s crows-town rivals Everton in the same window.
Salah has not just scored goals, he has scored all kinds of goals. Rounding the goalkeeper for a tap-in, curling from outside of the box, beating a raft of defenders before putting it beyond the goalkeeper’s reach, sneaking behind the centre-backs for a through ball, slotting crosses, Messi-esque slaloms past defenders before unleashing. His goals this campaign will make the uploaders of YouTube compilation videos rub their hands in glee.
Salah’s Watford heroics seemed like a 90-minute encapsulation of his season thus far.
A strong favourite for the Premier League Golden Boot, Salah is also in the reckoning to win the player of the season in England. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see him on the podium at the Ballon d’Or.
Salah’s stellar season doesn’t just stop with his heroics at Anfield but also for guiding Egypt to a World Cup for the first time in 28 years. Despite being the most successful team in the African Cup of Nations, Egypt’s attempts at World Cup qualification had largely been a story of misery. It is all set to change in Russia this year. In the penultimate match of the final qualifying round of the 2018 World Cup it came down to a Salah penalty in virtually the last kick of the game against Congo secure Egypt’s qualification.
When the 25-year-old stood at the penalty spot in front of the capacity 75,000 Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria, many hands were raised to the heavens and plenty others covered their eyes to get some temporary relief from the tension but a nerveless Salah calmly slotted the ball home and took Egypt to what will be only their third appearance at a World Cup.
His stellar season has yielded Salah the African Footballer of the Year as well as the BBC African Footballer of the Year awards and has made him a cult hero at Anfield as fans serenade him with endearing renditions of Dodgy’s Good Enough, with modified lyrics that goes: “If he’s good enough for you he’s good enough for me, if he scores another few then I’ll be Muslim too. If he’s good enough for you he’s good enough for me, he’s sitting in the mosque that’s where I wanna be.”
Salah isn’t just the top scorer in the league this campaign but with nine assists he is only behind Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane, highlighting his extraordinary contribution to Liverpool this season. Under Jurgen Klopp’s management, the Reds seem closer to reaching their lofty heights of old than they have done in the recent past, and if they are to finally realise their dream of winning a Premier League title in the near future, Salah will be integral to the German’s plans.
The onus will be on Liverpool to keep Salah when the inevitable bids come this summer.
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